Our experts' guide to healthy screen time management.
ySafe Digital Parenting - Screen-time
Screen time is a major concern for most parents. It can be a minefield balancing the needs of children's connected lives but avoiding the dreaded tech tantrums that come with device removal. If you've ever encountered this situation, you are not alone! Research shows that 70% of parents have dealt with tantrums and fights after a device has been removed, and 62% report ongoing conflict in the household because of this.
So how much is too much? The bad news: there is no definitive answer. The good news: there is no definitive answer! The leading authority on screen time is the American Academy of Pediatrics, however, the World Health Organization has also now weighed in on the debate. Both now define screen time as "time spent viewing 'entertainment' on an electronic device". The important thing to note in this definition is that this time EXCLUDES time spent on screen-based educational activities such as homework or apps that promote learning.
Not all screen time is created equal. It is now more important to critically think about the passive vs. interactive nature of what our children are doing online, rather than just counting the minutes or hours. A passive activity is one where information flow is directed one way, by contrast, an interactive activity is where information is more like a conversation, with 2 or more parties contributing.
Depending on how we quantify the issue, there are several age groups that are vulnerable to different aspects of screen-related issues. Research has shown that the majority of parents provide toddlers and preschoolers with unsupervised access to screen time. Primary-aged children are commonly given their first personal device, therefore increasing difficulties with screen time management without parents' help. Teenagers display the highest level of screen usage, with one of the greatest concerns being the impact of late-night device usage on sleep quality.
Arguably, our latest generation of kids has been accessing devices at earlier and earlier ages. Research has found that 20% of 5-6 year olds have a TV in their room. Even more concerning is the finding that 50% of toddlers and preschoolers use devices on their own without supervision. In the same study, half of parents of teenagers and a third of parents of primary-aged children stated that they did not enforce screen time limits.
While we know that screen time is not unequivocally bad, one thing we can discern is that a lack of screen time limits and boundaries around screen time can lead to excessive screen use by children and teenagers. Particularly given that the part of a child's brain that is in charge of self-regulating behavior isn't fully developed until 25, unfettered and unchecked access to devices increases the likelihood of not only screen time issues, but exposure to inappropriate screen content.
Here are our three top insights direct from ySafe's leading cyber safety experts.
Emerging research has indicated that the quality of screen-based activities should guide the quantity of screen time.
As a parent, it's important to stay aware of the type of activities your kids are participating in online, so you can make informed choices about screen-time limits. The simple rule here is that anything that has more quality to it (either it's educational or is a socially shared activity such as watching a family movie) can render more quantity (time), whereas a screen-based activity that isn't quality, means a little less quantity.
Think of it this way - The Bachelor is an entertaining show, but doesn't provide much educational value. It doesn't do any harm to watch a small amount, but binge-watching it for 5 hours might not be doing our brain (or body) any favors!
Using technology with your children is also a great way to understand what they are doing, and who says you can't enjoy it too! Co-viewing can really ramp up the benefits (and reduce the negative effects) of any type of screen time. Regardless of quality, it's important to remember that issues occur when media use displaces, rather than enhances real life.
Physical activity, adequate sleep, social interaction, hands-on outdoor experiences, and face-to-face interaction need to be the primary activities undertaken by your children. Balanced with moderate screen time, these activities enhance life, rather than detract from it.
If you want to setup your child's device to ensure they implement healthy and balanced online habits, here are the steps that we would recommend you take:
Parents need to supervise what their children are accessing. Keeping online time in public spaces at home helps parents identify issues such as strangers engaging with the child, or if banter between friends is being taken too far. We recommend refraining from children using headsets, (even though this may be a little annoying!).
Research indicates that access to social media and entertainment apps increase for teenagers at around 9 pm, and show high levels of teen engagement until around 1 am. In order to promote healthy sleep habits, we recommend that devices stop being used at least an hour before bed, and devices should not be allowed in bedrooms. If teens are arguing they need their phones for their alarm or for Spotify, consider using a parental control tool to block access to social media and games. If they won't let you install a parental control tool, then be firm on no devices in bedrooms at night (alarm clocks still work really well, even in 2020).
When engaged in screen-based tasks, kids' brains are still actively consuming and processing information. This is particularly true when it comes to games, as games result in an increased level of cognitive arousal. While kids can fall asleep straight after screen time, research has shown that not providing a buffer time prior to sleep where screens are away, negatively impacts sleep quality. Being clear on an “off-time” is great for sleep, but also helpful for your kids to communicate with their friends that they won't be available until the following day.
We are all surrounded by technology so often, that we rarely manage off-times. It's essential for parents to model healthy screen habits for our children. Therefore, we recommend having a technology-free area in your home, or a technology-free time every day (6 pm-7 pm, around time for example). It is vital however that this applies to everyone in the house, including parents! This promotes a space for communication and bonding. If you find it difficult to stay away from your phone, it's a perfect time to share this discomfort with your kids, and open up a conversation about how everyone feels being apart from their device. This is great for sharing and connection.
Quite simply, good digital parenting begins with boundary-setting.
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